Oh Lord! What a scoundrel

Benjamin Markovits has completed his trilogy of novels about Byron. But how much of it should we believe? Suzi Feay asks him

I meet the US novelist Benjamin Markovits in the atmospheric gloom of Blacks Club in London's Soho, an 18th-century house just around the corner from P B Shelley's old lodgings in Poland Street, and not far from Albany, Byron's rather grander gaff in Piccadilly.

It seems a suitably raffish spot to celebrate the culmination of one of the most intriguing fictional projects of recent years: Markovits's Byron trilogy.

This clever, riddling series began in 2007 with Imposture and continued with 2008's A Quiet Adjustment. The first of these dealt with Byron's early fame and his relationship with the tragic John Polidori, his doctor; the second tackled the love triangle involving Byron, his sister, and the woman he should never have married – prim, vengeful Annabella Milbanke. Now, Childish Loves looks both at Byron in youth and at Missolonghi, where he died in the cause of Greek freedom (and in pursuit of a beautiful, 15-year-old Greek boy).

The storytelling is not at all straightforward. Childish Loves has a framing device involving the papers of Peter Sullivan, supposedly a former friend of Markovits who, the reader is told, really wrote the two previous books and much of this one. The fictional "Ben Markovits" not only doesn't think much of Peter's work, he muses about the banality of readers who only want to know "how much is true". There's even a walk-on part for Markovits's real-life editor at Faber, Lee Brackstone. What's going on?

"One of my ideas was not to write the kind of historical novel in which you say: 'In 1823 something happened and London at that time was blah ....' There were certain things an average reader just needed to know and the [metafictional structure] grew out of that. But the simple answer is," Markovits goes on, "I like being able to expose the historical scaffolding. One of the tricks I play in the book is that I reveal my sources, in a pseudo, Penn-and-Teller way."

He winds up with a flourish: "These books are no more true than any average novel; it's just that the things that are true in them are totally true, literally factually true, whereas the things that aren't true, sound like they are." Satisfied?

Markovits has been fascinated with Byron since he was a teenager. Arguably the least-read today of all the major Romantics, Byron, he believes, deserves another look. "I think the late stuff is tremendous, and the early stuff, though not great, is fun. Don Juan is a beautiful poem. And I would like Beppo to be taught alongside 'Ode to the West Wind' and 'Ode to a Nightingale' as one of the great romantic poems. It deserves it."

Although the books were always planned as a trilogy, Markovits says he made no effort to make the different versions of Byron that appear in each book line up. "He's horrible in A Quiet Adjustment ," he says. "The marriage was not his finest hour. He's obviously a contradictory character but there's a lot that is likeable about him. Which isn't surprising, because he was widely liked! People wanted to be around him."

But still, the arrogance, the egotism, the cruelty to wife, children and mistresses ...

"On top of all the really quite foolish vanity, the sexual brutality and all of that," Markovits muses, "Byron could be enormously sensible and shrewd, and that's a very attractive contrast. I think he's nicest as a boy; not so nice at college, when he's just coming into his sexual power; and at the end I hope you sympathise with him again, when he has this ridiculous infatuation with a 15-year-old Greek boy who doesn't care for him at all."

Ah, yes, the boys. "Ben Markovits" in the novel remarks that: "By our own modern standards [Byron] was probably a paedophile and certainly a rapist, at least of the statutory kind," and the interpretation of different sexual acts is crucial to our reading of the trilogy.

"I'm generally interested in what's unhappy-making about sexual awakening," explains Markovits. "I think all sexual awakening involves a sort of coming out; it seems to be painful for people. I wanted to show various sex acts in different contexts, so we could judge what the moral value of it was. One of the things I wanted to do in the book was frame, in different ways, sex acts that we weren't quite comfortable with. In the end, do you want Byron to get together with the Greek boy? In a way you sort of do, right? Well, I did .... Okay, the boy's 15, he's a dependent, but he seems to hold all the power in the relationship and there's something dreadfully sad about Byron's devotion to him."

But it's the fully consummated incestuous relationship with Augusta Leigh that still has the power to shock. "It wasn't really that kinky, was it? He didn't know Augusta all that well as a kid; she was a half-sister," argues Markovits, adding unexpectedly: "Whenever I meet half-siblings, I always ask them, 'so how sexually attracted to each other are you?'"

I ask if he has siblings. "I've got three sisters. I don't feel sexually attracted to them though," he adds, deadpan.

So, how would he persuade a teenager to give Byron's poetry a try? His answer is typically thoughtful. "People have bad reactions to poetry for a reason. It's not that they don't know any better. Byron had the same antipathy to what he considered the poetical. He tried to write a more natural poetry. I guess that's what I would say." Then, after a pause: "And there's sex in it. Sex, swords, murder."

Childish Loves, By Benjamin Markovits (Faber £14.99)

'Rape scenes had featured in both of Peter's novels, scenes of sexual initiation, but this one struck me as a departure from the others: it was the only one involving a man and a boy. (Lord Grey was eight years older than Byron, which makes a difference at 23 and 15.) I don't want to say a writer can't write a scene like that without drawing on personal experience. But if there has been some personal experience, I also don't see how he can leave it out entirely.'

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Feeling all at sea: Barbara's 18-year-old son came under the influence of a Canadian libertarian preacher – and she had to fight to win him back
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Living the high life: Anne Robinson enjoys some skip-surfed soup
TV review
Arts and Entertainment

Great British Bake Off
Arts and Entertainment
Doctor Who and Missy in the Doctor Who series 8 finale

TV
Arts and Entertainment

film
Arts and Entertainment
Chvrches lead singer Lauren Mayberry in the band's new video 'Leave a Trace'

music
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
Home on the raunch: George Bisset (Aneurin Barnard), Lady Seymour Worsley (Natalie Dormer) and Richard Worsley (Shaun Evans)

TV review
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Strictly Come Dancing was watched by 6.9m viewers

Strictly
Arts and Entertainment
NWA biopic Straight Outta Compton

film
Arts and Entertainment
Natalie Dormer as Margaery Tyrell and Lena Headey as Cersei Lannister in Game of Thrones

Game of Thrones
Arts and Entertainment
New book 'The Rabbit Who Wants To Fall Asleep' by Carl-Johan Forssen Ehrlin

books
Arts and Entertainment
Calvi is not afraid of exploring the deep stuff: loneliness, anxiety, identity, reinvention
music
Arts and Entertainment
Edinburgh solo performers Neil James and Jessica Sherr
comedy
Arts and Entertainment
If a deal to buy tBeats, founded by hip-hop star Dr Dre (pictured) and music producer Jimmy Iovine went through, it would be Apple’s biggest ever acquisition

album review
Arts and Entertainment
Paloma Faith is joining The Voice as a new coach

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Dowton Abbey has been pulling in 'telly tourists', who are visiting Highclere House in Berkshire

TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Patriot games: Vic Reeves featured in ‘Very British Problems’
TV review
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Isis profits from destruction of antiquities by selling relics to dealers - and then blowing up the buildings they come from to conceal the evidence of looting

    How Isis profits from destruction of antiquities

    Robert Fisk on the terrorist group's manipulation of the market to increase the price of artefacts
    Labour leadership: Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea

    'If we lose touch we’ll end up with two decades of the Tories'

    In an exclusive interview, Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea
    Tunisia fears its Arab Spring could be reversed as the new regime becomes as intolerant of dissent as its predecessor

    The Arab Spring reversed

    Tunisian protesters fear that a new law will whitewash corrupt businessmen and officials, but they are finding that the new regime is becoming as intolerant of dissent as its predecessor
    King Arthur: Legendary figure was real and lived most of his life in Strathclyde, academic claims

    Academic claims King Arthur was real - and reveals where he lived

    Dr Andrew Breeze says the legendary figure did exist – but was a general, not a king
    Who is Oliver Bonas and how has he captured middle-class hearts?

    Who is Oliver Bonas?

    It's the first high-street store to pay its staff the living wage, and it saw out the recession in style
    Earth has 'lost more than half its trees' since humans first started cutting them down

    Axe-wielding Man fells half the world’s trees – leaving us just 422 each

    However, the number of trees may be eight times higher than previously thought
    60 years of Scalextric: Model cars are now stuffed with as much tech as real ones

    60 years of Scalextric

    Model cars are now stuffed with as much tech as real ones
    Theme parks continue to draw in thrill-seekers despite the risks - so why are we so addicted?

    Why are we addicted to theme parks?

    Now that Banksy has unveiled his own dystopian version, Christopher Beanland considers the ups and downs of our endless quest for amusement
    Tourism in Iran: The country will soon be opening up again after years of isolation

    Iran is opening up again to tourists

    After years of isolation, Iran is reopening its embassies abroad. Soon, there'll be the chance for the adventurous to holiday there
    10 best PS4 games

    10 best PS4 games

    Can’t wait for the new round of blockbusters due out this autumn? We played through last year’s offering
    Transfer window: Ten things we learnt

    Ten things we learnt from the transfer window

    Record-breaking spending shows FFP restraint no longer applies
    Migrant crisis: UN official Philippe Douste-Blazy reveals the harrowing sights he encountered among refugees arriving on Lampedusa

    ‘Can we really just turn away?’

    Dead bodies, men drowning, women miscarrying – a senior UN figure on the horrors he has witnessed among migrants arriving on Lampedusa, and urges politicians not to underestimate our caring nature
    Nine of Syria and Iraq's 10 world heritage sites are in danger as Isis ravages centuries of history

    Nine of Syria and Iraq's 10 world heritage sites are in danger...

    ... and not just because of Isis vandalism
    Girl on a Plane: An exclusive extract of the novelisation inspired by the 1970 Palestinian fighters hijack

    Girl on a Plane

    An exclusive extract of the novelisation inspired by the 1970 Palestinian fighters hijack
    Why Frederick Forsyth's spying days could spell disaster for today's journalists

    Why Frederick Forsyth's spying days could spell disaster for today's journalists

    The author of 'The Day of the Jackal' has revealed he spied for MI6 while a foreign correspondent